It is with great pleasure that I rise this afternoon to speak on the Victims of Crime Commissioner Bill 2015. The bill before us is a fairly simple bill; however, its simplicity does not take away from its importance. The key to today’s debate is an acknowledgement that we can never, ever do enough in terms of making sure that the voices of victims of crime are heard, listened to and incorporated into the justice system.
This bill builds on work that has been done over the years, and I acknowledge the work that was done by the previous government as well. It is important in talking to this bill that we acknowledge that it is about not just victims of crime but their actual experiences. It is not looking just at crime figures and statistics but also at the ability of victims of crime to engage with the system. It is for us to not just learn from their experiences but also to hear from them about the repercussions of what has happened to them and their families not just at the time but as the years go by and for us to understand what other services need to be provided to assist and support those who have suffered and endured great disadvantage as well as injustice.
The bill provides the government with a more humane approach to policy and program development in making sure that those who have been at the coalface of crime are not just afforded an opportunity to talk but are also active participants in making sure that we have a more humane approach to the issue of crime and its impact on individuals, families and the community.
This bill enshrines the voices of victims of crime in law through the victims of crime commissioner. Victims of crimes are put at the centre of our thinking, ensuring their recognition in the justice system. The commissioner will represent the interests of victims as an independent voice when dealing with government as well as promote the inclusion and participation of victims in the justice system. It is important to note that the previous government was responsible for setting up the role of the victims of crime commissioner that serves Victoria today.
Mr Greg Davies, APM, was the inaugural victims of crime commissioner, and I take this opportunity to recognise and thank Mr Davies for fulfilling this important role. Mr Davies has had a long and distinguished career in the criminal justice system and is an excellent advocate for victims of crime. However, the previous government did not give the commissioner or indeed the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee any real formal functions or purpose, and today this government is attempting to address this issue.
This bill seeks to provide some structure to the role within a legislative framework, with clearly stated functions and powers. The bill also recognises the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee, which has existed since 2013. The committee is made up of victims of crime as well as representatives of the court and legal system, and it will provide the Attorney-General with advice on the improvement of the criminal justice system.
The bill will also ensure that the committee endures beyond changes of policy and government. The committee retains a high-level membership, including judicial representatives. The representatives of victims of crime will change every two years to ensure a broad representation of victims, and the members of the committee are bound by confidentiality provisions. Victim representatives on the committee have non-renewable two-year terms to ensure the turnover of those positions and therefore the representation of the widest possible range of views from within the community.
The Andrews government recently appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague, AO, as the chair of the committee. As a former Supreme Court judge, former member of the Adult Parole Board of Victoria and chair of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, he has extensive experience in the justice system in general and in the criminal justice system in particular so brings invaluable knowledge and experience to this role. I wish Justice Teague the very best in his new role.
The first chairperson of the committee was Justice Philip Cummins, MA, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and the current chair of the Victorian Law Reform Commission. Justice Cummins did a fine job as the inaugural chair, and I thank him for his service.
This government has introduced this bill into the Parliament because we are committed to doing whatever we can to improve the criminal justice system. We have shown that through a number of pieces of legislation that have come before the house — for example, the Serious Sex Offenders (Detention and Supervision) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015, which was recently debated in this place — and the government’s initiative of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
The state government also supports the Victims Support Agency, which administers the statewide victims of crime helpline and funds a network of local support services under the victims assistance program, otherwise known as VAP. The helpline operates from 8.00 a.m. to 11.00 p.m. seven days a week, including public holidays, and is a gateway to the victims service system. Helpline staff provide and facilitate referrals for victims to relevant services for ongoing support. The Department of Justice and Regulation also has a victims of crime website, which provides comprehensive information for victims on the support services that are available to victims of crime and on all aspects of the criminal justice process. This includes the investigation process, the court process and of course victim impact statements. In 2014–15 the website had over 130 000 visits.
The Bracks and Brumby Labor governments were also strong in their actions on criminal justice and victim support with such initiatives as the introduction of the Victims’ Charter Act 2006, among many others. And the government will continue to work hard to improve the criminal justice system, particularly those mechanisms that enable the voices of victims to be heard at the table.
The participation of victims in the criminal justice system undoubtedly leads to a stronger and, I would say, a fairer criminal justice system. To meet the needs of victims we must hear and understand their experiences. Victims have had firsthand knowledge of where the gaps are. Whether that be a lack of services for a particular type of crime area or the lack of services for non-English-speaking communities, when services such as these do not exist, it may lead to victims not reporting the crime at all — meaning there is no statistic. However, when the victim’s voice has a chance to be heard, agencies such as the victims of crime commissioner and its consultative committee can advise governments on these gaps in the system. Victoria’s victims of crime commissioner and the legislative framework that this bill introduces is an effective way of giving victims a voice. It is the agency that is there specifically for victims, and in turn it will understand their practical needs but also the barriers they experience to having their voice heard. Numerous studies from around the world clearly state that the victim has an important role to play in the justice system. As a government, it is our job to ensure that this voice is heard.
However, the commission is not just a voice to government for victims; it also carries out very important education work in the community. Over the last two years victim representatives on the committee have participated in community education forums held during Law Week in May and at regional forums in Traralgon, Shepparton, Broadmeadows and Geelong, which is in my electorate. Victim representatives on the committee have also recently participated in a film to help other families deal with the loss and grief that follows the death of a loved one as a result of an act of violence. This film is a moving account of their own experiences and journeys that will also be used by Victoria Police in training police members, by the Office of Public Prosecutions in educating prosecutors and potentially by the Judicial College of Victoria in educating judges.
In concluding, as is the case with the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Andrews Labor government is a government that wants to hear from everyone affected by crime in our state so it can create a system that minimises its frequency and impact as much as possible. The victims of crime commissioner, Victoria Police and the Office of Public Prosecutions were consulted during the development of this bill and have certainly indicated their support. I take this opportunity to thank all those who were involved in the commission to date and wish them the very best in their important work into the future. I commend the bill to the house.